Hawaii telescopes catch most distant explosion

Telescopes at the Mauna Kea and Haleakala observatories have measured the distance to the most distant cosmic explosion ever seen, opening a new view into the frontiers of space.

The explosion, known to astronomers as a "gamma-ray burst", was first detected by NASA's Swift satellite on Sunday morning before being pinpointed by telescopes in Chile. Telescopes around the world rushed to catch a glimpse of the fading explosion, including the Subaru telescope and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, and the MAGNUM telescope on Haleakala.

Nobuyaki Kawai from the Tokyo Institute of Technology led a team that used the 8.2 meter Subaru telescope to measure a precise distance to the explosion: 12.8 billion light-years. This is the most distant explosion astronomers have ever seen. There are less than fifty other known objects at such a great distance from Earth, and the farthest is only a mere 50 million light years more distant. Most of these are too faint for all but the largest of telescopes, so astronomers are excited by the relatively bright explosion.

"This explosion occured at the edge of the known Universe," Kawai enthused. "One day soon, gamma-ray bursts will let us see further than ever before."

The remnants of such explosions fade away in a matter of days, so cosmic explorers must be on their toes to catch them, UH astronomer Paul Price explained. When his cell phone rang at 2 a.m., Price was ready take charge of pointing IRTF and MAGNUM to the site of the explosion.

MAGNUM has a novel camera capable of taking visible and infrared images simultaneously, allowing Price, UH astronomer Len Cowie and University of Tokyo astronomers Yuzuru Yoshii and Takeo Minezaki to estimate the distance to the explosion from its color, reddened by the expansion of the Universe.

"It was immediately apparent from the images that we were looking at a source at the frontier of space," Professor Cowie said. "It's so much more distant than all the other gamma-ray bursts we've seen up until now."

This discovery comes less than a decade after scientists first learned that the explosions were coming from beyond our own galaxy. It wasn't even until three years ago that astronomers pieced together the puzzle of what causes these tremendous explosions.

According to Price, gamma-ray bursts are the death shrieks of a massive star, and where there are dying stars, there must be living ones as well. "Because these explosions are so bright, this gives us the opportunity to study stellar birth and death in the most distant Universe in a manner we could only dream about a couple of years ago."

Normally astronomers study the early Universe through the light of distant galaxies, or that generated by black holes steadily devouring matter. But the remnants of the gamma-ray bursts outshine even the most hungry of galactic black holes, allowing them to be seen across the Universe.

Gamma-ray burst researchers around the world are hoping that this success is a taste of things to come, and are hoping to be provided with further opportunities to push past the frontier.

The Subaru telescope is Japan's largest optical-infrared telescope, operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. The MAGNUM telescope, run by the University of Tokyo, is a 2 metre telescope on Haleakala dedicated to observing galaxies harboring black holes. The 3.5 metre InfraRed Telescope Facility is operated for NASA by the UH Institute for Astronomy.